Six years ago, Ned Hill, 56, VP for economic development at Cleveland State University, was researching ways to stimulate the city’s economy when he noticed that northeast Ohio was flush with consumer products companies. Hill and Daniel Cuffaro, 40, head of the industrial design department at the Cleveland Institute of Art, teamed up to create a full-service design district that they hope will transform downtown Cleveland into the new hub of American product development.
Why Cleveland as a center of the design industry? What about New York and San Francisco?
NH: If you look at the industrial design hot spots in the U.S., New York is dominated by entertainment and finance, Boston by education and health care, the Bay Area by IT and biotech, and Chicago by the sheer size of its economy. Cleveland’s the only place where design is front and center. Few regions have the depth of consumer product brands that we do, including Moen and Calphalon, and we have one of the country’s top five design institutions: The Cleveland Institute of Art. Cleveland’s the Milan of the Midwest, a gritty town supported by design.
What led you to build the District of Design?
NH: Dan’s students kept telling us they didn’t want to work in a cube farm off an exit ramp. They were taking jobs in Boston and San Francisco, sometimes for less money than they could have made in Cleveland, because of the lack of design culture here.
DC: Our idea was to build a complex of design showrooms and studios in downtown Cleveland. We’re not inventing a new industry here. We did a survey with Ned’s urban-planning students and found more than 100 existing design-related firms within a 20-block area: design studios, photography studios, printing, fabrication, architecture, papermaking—an incredible supply chain no one knew about. There was no interconnectivity among those resources, and none of them are on ground floors, so they’re kind of invisible.
You’re also encouraging regional companies to move in, but how will they benefit from renting space in a more expensive urban area?
NH: One company we’re negotiating with has 2 million square feet of production space in northeast Ohio; they’re considering a showroom in the District of Design. They want to attract interns, but students won’t come because the drive from the city is too long. They also have to bring in buyers from around the world, and their factory is an hour-long bus ride from any hotel.
DC: The District of Design is a way to streamline, so that instead of buyers driving all over northeast Ohio planning a product line, Cleveland would be a one-stop shop.
NH: For example, Nottingham Spirk, a huge local ID firm that developed the Crest Spin Brush, claims it has 50 CEOs a year coming through its design studios to work on new product ideas. ASM International, the materials resource, has two rapid-prototyping facilities in the District. A buyer could theoretically come in, work with Nottingham’s designers, select finishes, and get the product prototyped by ASM within 48 hours. It’s still hypothetical because we’re negotiating launch leases now, but the supply chain is sitting and waiting. The city has put up $2 million to help make this happen.
How close is the District to getting off the ground?
NH: We’re in negotiations with five companies, including coffee machine–maker Saeco and a multi-billion-dollar company we can’t name yet, which is enough to get this thing up and moving. Within two and a half years we should have 10 to 15 companies here. The coolest is led by two Amish businessmen, a father and son, who are organizing the Amish furniture companies in Ohio to come in as a collective and build a showroom and a place to collaborate with Dan’s students. It will secure the income of a community having difficulty making it through farming, and it’s possible a whole new vocabulary of Amish design will come out of this process.
Ned, your goal when you started this project was to improve the local economy. How will the District of Design do that?
NH: We can expect the first five companies to generate 50 new jobs, and there’s enough space for a tenfold increase over the 135 companies and 1,400 employees currently in the neighborhood. The District will make Cleveland an important contributor to the income of more than 40 consumer products companies in the region today, making it “sticky” and turning it into a talent magnet. In 10 years it could generate tens of thousands of jobs and provide Cleveland with a global economic reason for being.
DC: Cleveland doesn’t have a clear identity now except for river burns and rusty steel mills, though Viktor Schreckengost, who started the CIA’s school of design and passed away recently, spent his entire career here. Design has been in the DNA of Cleveland for a long time.
Monica Khemsurov is the senior editor of I.D.
Portrait by Jamie Campbell